It’s quite amazing that whenever I mention to people that I am a researcher in politics, they talk to me about elections, the government and how they often feel slated by the behaviour of their politicians. Ask what the best political system is, and people will tell you it’s democracy, of course. And if you ask them what’s most important in a democracy, clearly they’ll answer it’s the right to vote. Why? Because it gives ‘us’ all some sort of voice; a say in who will represent us in parliament. If it wasn’t for voting, a minority would certainly take power and rule only for their own interest.
Let’s consider these few statements and ask ourselves a few more questions. How many of us really think our vote matters and truly influences the way our country is run? Apart from token measures, who truly believes there is much of a difference between our two major parties? More to the point, how many of us vote for the least worst rather than for a party which truly represents our ideas of what society should be? Who believes the Greens or Katter’s new party are real alternatives to the system that leaves so many of us feeling powerless? In fact, by voting for things none of us could ever understand completely, aren’t we just willingly abandoning our democratic voice to experts? Yet we pride ourselves about living in a democratic society, and even support the imposition by force of our regime onto others. Of course, this is not to say that Afghanistan or Iraq were better off under previous regimes. However, isn’t there a problem with imposing on these societies a system which is increasingly showing its limits in ours? This is not such a radical thing to say, and after all, Churchill himself expressed doubts about democracy when he declared in the House of Commons in 1947 that ‘democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’.
Recently I read some astonishing figures in the news that convinced me further that the way the democratic world is ruled is only democratic in name. Interestingly, the sources do not come from radical left-wing organisations but from rather conservative institutions. A few figures are striking. In 2007, the wealthiest 10% Americans controlled 2/3 of Americans net worth; the wealthiest 1% over a third. As they saw their profit rising while the income of the bottom 80% stagnated, the wealthiest also benefitted from huge tax cuts. While the odds of being a millionaire in America are 1 in 22, the odds of a member of congress being one are nearly 1 in 2. Yet we still see them as representative. But then again, isn’t that the American dream that the best are the most successful? Clearly, Americans, poor or rich, would not have it any other way!
Well not according to Americans it seems.
There seems to be a slight difference between what the American population wants and what their politicians deliver. Similarly in Australia how obvious has it become that politicians care more about the marginal seats and powerful lobbies than about the majority? Were they to really care about the majority, it would still be a long way from what democracy truly should be: the power to all. This would entail decisions not made by and for the most numerous, strongest or powerful, but for the benefit of all. In an increasingly globalised world where we clearly have no choice but to share the downfalls, it might be a good idea to consider sharing the benefits, if only a bit more evenly.
Let’s not be caricatural. This is not to say everything should be put in common and people would have to repress their individuality. Instead, as these graphs suggest, it would be making the world the way most people would like it to be: a world where having a decent life would not be based on birth or the market, but an inalienable right. I don’t see any practical reason why this wouldn’t be possible and I doubt many would truly object to it, was it not for constant misinformation. While I appear extremely hopeful here, some might say utopian, it is worth stressing I do not believe most of the readers will agree with me. Our politics have become far too pessimistic for many to imagine anything positive for the future of humanity. This is certainly one of the greatest successes of our ‘so-called’ liberal democracies. As we were made to believe we were in charge and as the west fell into evermore greedy and individualistic tendencies, we have become convinced that we were responsible for the state of things. Worse, that it was human nature itself which was to blame, and that therefore nothing could be done.
Every day our media and leaders tell us how bad the situation is. Every day we are shown the basest elements of human nature in prime time, so that eventually they become the vision we have of ourselves. Yet there is hope. Every day we all witness people doing amazing things for others. I remain convinced most of us would be happy with a more equitable society. This would ‘only’ require a radical change in our politics. To effect this change is where I believe our democratic duty lies.
First published in The Punch (with comments!)